ArtsATL > Books > Review: Joseph Dabney cooks his way through melting pot of Lowcountry cuisine

Review: Joseph Dabney cooks his way through melting pot of Lowcountry cuisine

“The Food, Folklore, and Art of Lowcountry Cooking”

By Joseph E. Dabney. Cumberland House, 366 pages.

Author event: Joseph Dabney will discuss his new cookbook at the Toco Hill-Avis G. Williams Library, 1282 McConnell Drive, Decatur, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Monday, October 11.

The fertile, warm and watery plain that runs southwest from Charleston to Savannah, where huge plantations of rice and cotton spread along the rivers, is known as the Lowcountry, whose culinary history Joseph E. Dabney meanders through in his engaging new cookbook, “The Food, Folklore, and Art of Lowcountry Cooking.”

Dabney, a former newspaperman who won the 1999 James Beard Cookbook of the Year Award for “Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread, & Scuppernong Wine,” his study of Appalachian food traditions, is obviously a man who relishes curiosities and detours. Not only has he produced an intriguing narrative of how the food cultures of West African slaves and their English masters melded in plantation kitchens to create a rich, sumptuous cuisine, but he has woven into that story a living account of the more recent past. Traveling to Charleston and Savannah and in between, he stops to meet old-timers, roadside restaurateurs, renowned chefs, keepers of the African Gullah tradition and formidable Southern hostesses who can tell him what they ate and how they lived 40 or 50 years ago, when they were young.

Dabney’s book is a relief from slick, overproduced mainstream cookbooks with luscious images of impeccably styled food that no home-cooked meal could resemble. “Lowcountry Cooking” contains only grainy, Instamatic-style black-and-white photos of the people Dabney spoke to, mostly gray-haired and elderly. They are people who tell him with what relish they ate a baked sweet potato as an after-school snack in a bygone era, or how the small barrier island they lived on flourished like Eden with a cornucopia of vegetables, or how in the alleyways of aristocratic Savannah “black folks would come by with big baskets on their heads, selling seafoods and vegetables and singing some wonderful rhymes.”

An intrepid researcher, Dabney has culled recipes from a vast variety of sources: obscure church, school and community cookbooks; chronicles such as “The Historic Cook Book of the American Negro”; acclaimed restaurant chefs; small-time food events such as the 2008 Vidalia onion contest; and doyennes who dug out ancestors’ handwritten recipes for him. Struck by the wealth and magnificence of Charleston and Savannah as a young man, he pays homage to the epicurean seafood dishes that define those cities — deviled crab cakes, oyster and shrimp purloo (pilau), she-crab soup. But Dabney is at heart a folklorist from a poorer part of South Carolina, and he throws in the entire kitchen sink of Southern cooking, from recipes for funeral grits and sweet potato poona to field peas and banana pudding.

If you’re a contemporary cook accustomed to the world’s spice rack, what strikes you is the utter simplicity of seasonings (salt, pepper, lemon, maybe hot pepper sauce or garlic), the richness of fats (bacon, fatback, cream), and the countervailing emphasis on vegetables. Some dishes seem noteworthy merely as historical footnotes: Coon Stewed in Red Wine, or Edisto Island Terrapin Soup, which begins, “Kill the terrapin by cutting off its head. Hang the body up by its tail so blood will drain into a pan for quick disposition.”

In tracing the roots of Lowcountry cuisine, Dabney has produced a charming, authentic book with all the niggling flaws of reproducing a sprawling reality. The chapters, a hodgepodge of portraits, reminiscences and forays into old restaurants, could have been better organized to allow a smoother flow of the historical narrative. The story that the slave ships arriving in Charleston carried a human cargo that concealed in their hands remembrances of home — seeds for okra, peanuts, watermelon and benne (sesame) — is a compelling one.

Near Savannah, slaves plow a rice field circa 1855. Photo from Georgia Historical Society.

 

In Savannah Dabney meets Martha Nesbit, “a keen arbiter of the Lowcountry food scene,” who explains that although plantation homes used English recipes, the cooking took on an African slant with slaves throwing fatback into the pot as they might at home, or vegetables like okra and peanuts that they were used to cooking with. Savannah-style peanut soup, Dabney learns, is derived from African groundnut stew. Similarly, he discovers that Charleston red rice, made with tomatoes, is a variation of the red rice that is the national dish of Senegal.

He devotes an entire chapter to the buttery Carolina Gold rice that was the foundation of Charleston’s wealth. He reports on speculation that it, too, may have been brought over on slave ships. Certainly the enormous number of slaves imported to work on rice plantations knew how to cultivate paddies, because they came from Africa’s “rice coast.” The grand lifestyle of Charleston and Savannah, Dabney writes, was built “on the backs of Africans.”

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